Democrats Turn to Texas

House Minority Likes Walkout

Posted May 14, 2003 at 6:40pm

House Democrats may try to mimic in their own way Texas Democratic state lawmakers who brought their state House to a standstill this week by fleeing to Oklahoma.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the stealth and precision with which 53 Texas Democrats fled to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., — denying Republicans in the Texas Legislature the quorum they needed to bring up a Congressional redistricting plan pushed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — could be “a galvanizing event” for Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“If the Republicans continue to muzzle the minority with rules,” said Hoyer, “we may have no alternative but to take dramatic action.”

But House Democrats cannot stop action in their chamber by simply walking out as the Texas lawmakers did, though they have staged symbolic walkouts in the past.

A quorum in the House can be achieved with just a simple majority, or 218 Members, and Republicans control 229 seats. There are no requirements that a Member of the minority be present in order for the House to conduct its business.

Still, when Hoyer addressed the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning he called the Texas state lawmakers “courageous.” And he told his colleagues that House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), could learn from the Texas tactics.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) said Hoyer told House Democrats that “if Nancy [Pelosi] asks you to do something, you’d better be ready to do it.”

Still, Hoyer and other Democrats were cagey about what specifically they might be considering as a way to either stop House action or effectively impede the House Republican agenda.

“I’m not going to concede to the fact that we’ll even be deliberating [options],” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

Lee would say only that the Texas story showed that taking political risks could “shine sunlight” on issues important to Democrats.

“We’re going to be looking at a wider purview of options,” she said. “Maybe now there will be greater acceptance [in the Democratic Caucus] of self-inflicted wounds.”

Indeed, many Democrats said the key to any successful action would be the ability of the leadership to convince Members to take a political risk.

Filner, for example, criticized the House Democratic leadership’s penchant for relying on motions to recommit, a procedural maneuver that would send bills back to committee, to make their larger point. The Texas lawmakers, however, were thinking outside the box, Filner said.

“The press doesn’t report on procedures,” said Filner. “We haven’t done a large, organized, military-style operation like they have. Because we’re too busy worrying about our voting percentages.”

Republicans scoffed at the notion that Democrats could or would stage a massive walkout or actually be able to deal any setbacks to their agenda.

“If the Democrats in D.C. want to emulate the fugitives who went to Ardmore, we would welcome them joining the Ardmoronics,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.

At issue for most House Democrats is the similarity between the tactics of the House GOP and those used by the Texas Republican lawmakers to push through a redistricting plan that could result in a GOP gain of four seats in the Texas Congressional delegation. Currently under a three-judge panel map, Democrats hold 17 of the 32 House seats, compared to 15 for Republicans.

Democrats said they are getting fed up with the similar atmosphere they claim is being created by House Republicans on Capitol Hill. For example, Democrats pointed to the House GOP’s refusal to allow them to offer a substitute measure to the $550 billion tax bill as well as rules changes at the beginning of the 108th Congress that further restricted the legislative options of the minority party.

“They were pushed so far to the brink of not being able to have their voices heard,” said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) of his state legislative colleagues. “We cannot allow this kind of bullying and heavy-handed partisanship … whether it is in the U.S. Congress or in the great state of Texas.”

Lee agreed and offered a veiled warning to her colleagues on the right.

“We’ve heard things from Republicans, like, ‘You’re irrelevant,’” she said. “But they’ll find out that it always comes back to haunt you. There’s now been a great deal of sunlight put on what ultimately happens when your cup runneth over too much.”

But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) warned that Democrats should tread lightly when planning large-scale demonstrations that highlight the differences between the parties.

“The press would say it’s partisan bickering,” Frank said. “[The press] treats legitimate and major philosophical debate as partisan bickering.”

Frank also said past attempts to stage walkouts had not even been covered by the press and therefore were ineffective.

But Filner, a longtime advocate of having the House Democratic Caucus be more demonstrative and provocative, was more optimistic.

“It’s never the press’ fault. That just means we didn’t do our job right,” Filner said.